Written by Fiona Lau.
Music theory is a subject that can make the heart sink. It is often associated with dull work books and exams that must be taken. However, to some degree, theory is always taught when you learn to play an instrument. It includes note reading, basic rudiments and music terms and signs.
Learning is quicker and more fun when you link music theory to the pieces in an imaginative way. I often give my pupils a Quick Quiz before they play a new piece: ‘what will we count?’; ‘what is in the key signature?’; ‘play me the scale’; ‘which bar has only minims in it?’; ‘where does the first bar come back again?’ etc. With older pupils it can include questions about form, style, ornaments, modulations and cadences.
Only when theory comes out of the dull box we often consign it to, can it become truly relevant. Holistic learning can only be achieved when every aspect of playing an instrument is linked together. This is a thorough and long lasting way to learn and music theory plays a key part. For example: you’ll teach a scale by demonstration; listening; reading; writing in the notes; by colouring in the piano keys; and by naming the fingering; all to embed it deeply in the mind.
Teaching theory as you go along using tutor books with linked theory pages, separate theory books, or your own ideas in a manuscript book is the same. It will pay off in the form of good sight-readers and intelligent, aurally aware pupils. They will also make life easier for their classroom teachers when GCSE Music looms. Teaching theory is like teaching a child to read; it gives them access and understanding to all the music written.
Luckily, the rather deadly books I remember as a child are long gone. Harris shows us how to teach holistically in his books. Another series, Bullard’s Joining the Dots, links technique, sight-reading, solos, duets and improvisation together beautifully. Lina Ng and Ying Ying Ng have colourful theory books where games reinforce learning. And, if you must do exams, Theory is Fun by Cox takes the sting out of it. The valuable First Steps in Music Theory by ABRSM also helps teachers help pupils.
There are also the more tactile aids such as flashcards, magnetic note boards, card games and some fantastic music theory apps – all children enjoy theory taught via technology of some sort. So get out that new Grade 1 piece; draw a mind map of theory activities to help teach it and include a quick quiz; some flashcard composition using the piece’s notes; use Flip-a Rhythm to reinforce the note values; find theory exercises related to it and challenge your pupils to learn the new musical terms in it for the next lesson. Music theory is the language of musicians and it opens up the world for us all.